During its regular Monday meeting, Lowell City Council spent an hour discussing issues ranging from an income tax proposal to sidewalks to whether an island should be placed in Monroe Street to deter trucks and eliminate left turns.
Councilmember Cliff Yankovich also made a special appeal to the public in his final comments of the evening. “We have a new business in town that wants to put a new sign on their building but they can’t,” he said. The problem? The Downtown Historic District Commission has two vacancies so they don’t have the quorum necessary to grant approvals. Anyone interested in helping to fill those spots can complete the application for appointment that is available on the city website.
$12,000 Approved for City Income Tax PR
The city income tax proposal was the first main item of business on the meeting agenda. City Manager Mike Burns said he had been discussing with Mary Ann Sabo of Sabo PR the development of a communication plan for the city income tax ballot initiative. Sabo PR already handles crisis communications for the city, and they have been involved in successful millage initiatives in the City of Wyoming and the City of East Grand Rapids.
While the city can’t legally pay for anything endorsing the income tax proposal, they can provide educational content. Sabo PR proposed an education strategy including website content, a social media campaign and digital advertising at a cost of $12,000. Burns said funds were budgeted for this but did not provide more specifics.
Although Sabo was in the audience, she did not address the council and councilmembers had no questions for her. Without any discussion, the council voted unanimously to approve the expenditure.
Recreational Marijuana Ordinance on Hold
The Planning Commission has been working on zoning requirements for recreational marijuana facilities, but the state recently issued emergency rules on the topic and some of those don’t “interact well” with the proposed city ordinance. Burns said city staff would be reviewing the state rules and expect to come back to the City Council in August with new recommendations. “I’m assuming we’ll have a Committee of the Whole,” Burns said.
Saga of the Sidewalks
Burns provided an update on sidewalk improvements, or the lack thereof, in the city. He noted when an inspector marked sidewalks in need of improvement last year, he used old, more restrictive standards. Once those markings were corrected, then assistant manager Rich LaBombard advised against sending out enforcement letters. If a resident failed to fix their sidewalk, the city would normally do the work itself and place a lien on the property for the cost of the repair. However, LaBombard apparently did not feel the city had the financial means to make repairs itself at this time.
Other staffing vacancies and an injury to the sidewalk inspector have resulted in this project being further deprioritized. “In essence, we will need to reestablish our sidewalk standards most likely next spring when [new Department of Public Works director] Dan Czarnecki is more up to speed in his position,” Burns said, but he did not elaborate on why or how the standards would need to be changed. Burns also shared that a city-hired contractor is in the process of pouring sidewalks at city parks and making repairs to sections in the downtown.
The city manager asked councilmembers if they would be willing to rescind an ordinance requiring sidewalk inspections at the time of a home sale. This ordinance has apparently never been enforced. However, councilmembers preferred to leave the ordinance as is and address it next spring when the issue of sidewalks is expected to come before them again.
Value of Fire Authority Consultant Questioned
Next on the agenda was a discussion about a proposal from the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority to complete an organizational and operational review. Mayor Mike DeVore, who is the council representative on the authority, said members would be interviewing possible consultants on Thursday. The cost of the consultant would be $25,000-$30,000 and split between the city, Lowell Charter Township and Vergennes Township.
“My concerns are obviously the price tag,” DeVore said, noting that the department has significant expenses looming, including the cost of a replacement truck. “I have a hard time saying we have to pay for XYZ and we don’t have money for that but we have money for a consultant.”
Councilmember Greg Canfield countered that the money — $8,000 to $10,000 for the city share — might be a good investment if it helped the council and township boards make an informed decision regarding whether to hire full-time firefighters. The cost of adding those positions is estimated at $1.6 million over a ten year period.
DeVore said he might not be opposed if the consultant was simply going to make a recommendation on full-time firefighters, but he bristled at the scope of the proposed work which would include reviewing operating guidelines and the department’s command structure. “That’s Ron’s area,” DeVore said, referencing Fire Chief Ron van Overbeek. “I would never come…here and tell Mike [Burns] who to hire and fire,” DeVore said, arguing that the consultant’s report would represent an overreach of the fire board’s authority.
Canfield said he had heard concerns about Saturday trainings deterring people from becoming volunteer firefighters. DeVore acknowledged that response times for overnight calls had been a problem but said it was up to van Overbeek to address any concerns firefighters might have. He said that having a consultant come in to evaluate the operations of the department would be the equivalent of “to go into somebody’s house and tell them how to cook.”
The issue was on the agenda for informational purposes and no action was taken at the end of the councilmembers’ discussion.
Island and One-Way Traffic Mulled for Monroe Street
The last major issue of discussion on the council agenda was the addition of a traffic island on Monroe Street. “Logistically, it’s impossible to stop every truck that goes down Monroe when it should go down Jefferson,” Burns said. The trucks are travelling to Atwood, and Police Chief Steve Bukala noted part of the problem seemed to stem from truck drivers listening to their GPS directions rather than looking for truck route signs.
Burns suggested adding a traffic island in the left hand turn lane on Monroe Street as a way to deter trucks from turning there. As an added benefit, the island – which would be on the north side of Monroe next to City Hall – would eliminate left turns onto Main Street. On-street parking and heavy traffic in the downtown make those left turns dangerous. “I don’t believe it’s safe,” Burns said. “I know the police chief doesn’t think it’s safe.”
Councilmember Marty Chambers suggested adding bump outs to the intersection as another way to encourage truck drivers to avoid Monroe and use Jefferson. Yankovich added that when he was on the Downtown Development Authority, there had been discussion about turning Monroe into a one-way street for at least the block leading to Main Street.
“I think we have to eliminate the left-hand turn no matter what we do,” DeVore said, but Councilmember Jim Salzwedel was concerned about how that might affect traffic on residential streets. “I think what [that does] is force people to cut through the neighborhoods,” he said.
There is $100,000 in the Downtown Development Authority budget for bump outs and a traffic island, according to Burns. Once Czarnecki, the new Director of Public Works, starts his job next month, this will be something he will investigate further.
All the Rest
In other business, the council appointed DeVore to be the city delegate to a Michigan Municipal League conference and ok’d a request by Lowell Light & Power to allow their workers the option to contribute to Roth 457 retirement plans.
In his manager’s report, Burns said the Michigan Department of Transportation appears poised to deny a left hand turn light from Main Street to Hudson Street. He will be meeting with the department for more information shortly. He also said he was almost done with an update to the employee handbook, a project he began shortly after he was first hired.
Yankovich asked whether the city had an ordinance addressing the storage of boats in the river or on park land. Bukala said storing a boat on city parkland is not allowed.
Chambers brought cupcakes in honor of DeVore’s birthday, and councilmembers and those in attendance sang for the Mayor before the meeting concluded at 8pm.
The next Lowell City Council meeting will be held at Monday, August 5, at 7pm on the second floor of City Hall.